Home learning in Covid-19 lockdown proves daunting

Online learning is not as simple as downloading the educational material and in an unequal country like South Africa, not all pupils have equal access to the internet.

“Being in matric makes it even more stressful because we are going to lose out on learning time. I might not be prepared for my finals [final exams],” says Zizipho Zosela, a grade 12 learner at Lyttelton Manor High School in Centurion, Gauteng.

The 18-year-old pupil says the Covid-19 pandemic has adversely affected her studies. And while she knows that isolation is vital to avoiding becoming infected with the coronavirus, Zosela is concerned about the viability of self-study. “Getting clarification on certain things might be impossible,” she says. “Completing homework based on content I haven’t been taught in class is very hard and frustrating. I wish I had a teacher’s assistance.”  

To cope with learning in isolation, her peers have created a WhatsApp group to share documents such as past papers and study guides with each other. The group chat has 150 students. “Whenever a student has difficulty in understanding a certain topic or question we help each other by sending a voice note or a video explaining,” says Zosela. The group chat was started by a fellow student who thought “it would be great if we helped each other”.  

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Gcina Mtya, 18, is a pupil at iQonce High School in King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape. She says online learning is challenging when you don’t have adequate internet infrastructure.

Mtya is in matric and doesn’t have access to all the required textbooks. “Vodacom has provided e-school and it’s free of charge. It has good information. It’s not only for grade 12 learners but for all other grades. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to access e-school when too many users are also connected. You would be told to try again later. When you try again, connecting is still a problem due to a lack of network connectivity in rural areas where we live.”

When she can’t connect to Vodacom e-school, Mtya uses educational app and website Matric Live. The disadvantage is that “Matric Live doesn’t have all the information”, she says. 

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Benedict Matsaung, an 18-year-old grade 12 pupil at Mmatshipi Senior Secondary School in Ga-Mashashane, Limpopo, has similar problems with distance learning. Like Zosela, he longs for a teacher’s guidance. “I am afraid, because some of the subjects are not easy to do alone,” he says. Matsaung wants to study computer engineering after school.

For now though, Matsaung is focused on staying safe. But he is already feeling the strain. “Coronavirus scares me a lot and has affected me mentally, because every day there is a new case of Covid-19 in every province,” he says.

On 26 March, Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga asked parents to be vigilant and support learners. “Do not leave them unattended, watch for signs of depression and provide ongoing support to address any anxiety at this time.”

Learning in lockdown

An information systems professor at the University of the Western Cape, Mmaki Jantjies, writes in an article for The Conversation website that children can still learn during the lockdown. “Online learning is an obvious way to keep lessons going; however, only a few schools have well-established online learning systems. Additional challenges for parents can include connectivity problems, limited data access and power blackouts.”

Jantjies adds, “The process of home learning can also feel isolating, especially with children who are not usually home schooled and are used to being surrounded by other children. Be prepared to play traditional physical games, outside if you can, or play board games as alternatives to online activities.”

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The government’s 21-day lockdown to try and slow the rate of coronavirus infection in South Africa is unprecedented and Motshekga said no one knows how long it will be before schools reopen. “There is no truth to what has been circulated on social media about schools reopening in September … The exact dates for the opening of schools for the start of the second term will be communicated at a later date.”

She said the Council of Education Ministers had agreed to focus on catch-up programmes. “Together with provinces, DBE [the basic education department] has prepared online and broadcast support resources comprising subject content and a focus on grade 12 learners and the promotion of reading for all the grades. Some of the programmes will be available from 1 April.”

Feeding schemes suspended

The department has suspended its school nutrition programme. Motshekga said school feeding schemes are “a complex matter to resolve, especially when learners are not in school”.

“Of the 13 million kids in school, nine million receive a free school meal every day they are at school,” says Stellenbosch University senior economics researcher Nic Spaull. When one in five children is hungry and relies on these meals for their basic needs, it is clear that free school meals have become part of the social infrastructure on which millions of South African children rely, he adds.

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Advocacy group Equal Education researcher Malin Steinsland has also called for support for the nutritional development of children, especially if the lockdown persists for longer than 21 days. “Government must either implement the mass rollout of food packages to distribution points in a coordinated and safe manner, or increase the financial allocation for the child support grant for parents, guardians and caregivers to feed children.”

Spaull adds: “The money has already been budgeted and allocated. Now provinces need to find innovative ways of getting meals to kids while schools are closed.”

Online access

Steinsland says one of the biggest challenges when it comes to online learning is access to the internet. Getting the material is one aspect. But learners being able to engage with online content and their educators is also an important aspect of online learning, she says.

There are a number of factors that can reduce the effectiveness of online learning from home. Is there an adult to support the pupil’s academic endeavours? Is the home environment conducive to learning? Are learners expected to fulfil other, sometimes time-consuming, duties at home?

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“The DBE has introduced some measures to cater for learners who do not have resources to access online learning materials. These include announcing the broadcast of some lessons on radio and television. An impressive schedule has been published for classes on a dedicated Open View channel. At this point, classes on the channel seem to be focused on grades 10 to 12 and it is not clear where plans are for a similar SABC channel that would be more accessible,” says Steinsland. Open View is a free-to-air satellite television service in South Africa that has dedicated its channel 122 to school classes. 

“Catering to learners in early grades might entail providing learners with activity books or other age-appropriate learning resources. Special needs learners mustn’t be left behind during this period. It is important that both audio and visual material and broadcast mediums are utilised and that online and television broadcasts are also taught in South African Sign Language,” adds Steinsland.

In an education system already marked by inequality, she concludes, the department must plan its emergency measures with learners who have the minimum of access to resources in mind. If it fails to do so, the existing inequalities in the education system will be worsened.

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